Humans have been enjoying San Diego’s climate since at least 18, 000 BC, if the middens (ancient refuse heaps) that litter the region are any proof. By the time Spanish explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo became the first European to sail into San Diego Bay in 1542, the region was divided peaceably between the native Kumeyaay and Luiseño/Juaneño peoples. Their way of life continued undisturbed until Junípero Serra and Gaspar de Portola arrived in 1769. They founded a mission and a military fort on the hill now known as the Presidio, making it the first permanent European settlement in California.
When the United States took California from Mexico in the 1840s, San Diego remained little more than a ramshackle village. But William Heath Davis, a San Francisco property speculator, knew there was a fortune to be made. In the 1850s, he bought 160 acres of bayfront property and erected prefabricated houses, a wharf and warehouses. ‘Davis’ Folly’ eventually went bust, but only because he was ahead of this time. Just a decade later, another San Francisco speculator acquired 960 acres of waterfront land and promoted it as ‘New Town.’ This time the idea stuck, and Alonzo E Horton became a rich man.
The discovery of gold in the hills east of San Diego in 1869 certainly helped. The ensuing rush brought the railroad to San Diego in 1884, and also led to the development of a classic Wild West culture, with saloons, gambling houses and brothels hidden behind the respectable Victorian facades of the city’s Gaslamp Quarter. But when the gold played out, the economy took a nosedive and the city’s population plummeted as much as 50%.
When San Francisco hosted the wildly successful Panama-Pacific International Exposition (1914), San Diego responded with its own Panama-California Exposition (1915-16), hoping to attract investment to a city with a deepwater port, a railroad hub and a perfect climate - but virtually no industry. To give San Diego a unique image, boosters built exhibition halls in the romantic, Spanish colonial style that still defines much of the city today.
However it was the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 that made San Diego. The US Pacific Fleet needed a mainland home for its headquarters. The top brass quickly settled on San Diego, whose excellent deepwater port affords protection in almost all weather. The military literally reshaped the city, dredging the harbor, building landfill islands, and constructing vast tracts of instant housing.
For San Diego, the war was only the start of the boom, thanks largely to the continued military presence. However, the opening of the University of California campus in the 1960s heralded a new era as students and faculty slowly drove a liberal wedge into the city’s homogenous, flag-and-family culture. The university, especially strong in the sciences, has also been a fine incubator for the biotech sector. The military still plays a major role in San Diego County, accounting for at least a fourth of its economic activity.